Of the 58 finalists in the Bolivian Cup of Excellence coffee tasting competition, nine of them came from around one little hamlet called San Ignacio.

Of the 58 finalists in the Bolivian Cup of Excellence coffee tasting competition, nine of them came from around one little hamlet called San Ignacio.

Jared Rennie, owner of Ashland's Noble Coffee and a judge in the tasting, is dedicated to making personal connections, offering enough money for growers to make a good living and working as a distributor for two dozen companies in the Northwest.

Before leaving for the judging, Rennie asked growers if there were anything that the couple hundred residents of San Ignacio needed.

They said they needed school supplies. The grade-school-aged children didn't even have pens or paper. In fact, no one in town had a computer.

Rennie put up a collection box at the counter of Noble Coffee — and a page on its Web site — allowing customers to kick in $600 before the trip. At Dr. Networking in Ashland, Rennie found an old laptop (its owner had just upgraded) and used the donated funds to buy it, a printer, cables, flash drives, plus lots of pens, paper, notebooks and school supplies.

Rennie was a judge in the Bolivian Cup of Excellence competition and made purchases of the top beans. But visiting San Ignacio, home of 40 growers, and handing the residents school supplies and a laptop, was an experience of a lifetime, he said.

"They were ecstatic, awestruck. When you give them something for free, they're very appreciative and humbled," Rennie said.

The village has electricity but no internet — and they'll use the computer for word-processing and as an organizational tool to keep track of students and coffee crops, Rennie said.

Without pens and paper — let alone a computer — the kids still go to school, said Rennie, "but you get to the point where you just don't write."

Rennie is a member of a "buying group" of coffee shops, markets, bed & breakfasts and wholesale roasters on the West Coast from Northern California to Washington — and has gone before to Cup of Excellence tastings, which take place in the big coffee-growing countries in Central and South America, East Africa and Indonesia.

Winners of the tastings gain considerable prestige and their beans, usually going for $1 to $1.50, are bid up on internet auctions to $10, $20, $40 and even $60 a pound, Rennie said, thus encourage growing of the highest quality beans and giving growers a living wage.

One of the sponsors of the Cup of Excellence is the U.S. Agency for International Development, which wants to keep farmers focused on growing java instead of cocoa, Rennie said.

The coffee of Caranavi province in Columbia is "among the best," he noted, adding, "It's the terrior, that is, the soil, the access to clean water, the right amount of sun, the elevation. It's a lot of what nature gives, plus the know-how of the growers, how to get rid of pests, when to pick."

Rennie was directed to the region by exporters, who appreciated the fact he was "not just a little company buying a few bags, but is a buying group," he said.

The Web site www.coffeeAM.com, says of the Caranavi beans that they're "grown by a small group of native farmers known as colonials on land that is steep at elevations rising to 5,800 feet. These typica and bourbon coffee beans cultivated in the tropics of Bolivia below a magnificent mahogany forest, come from 41 small farms averaging 3 acres each. The farmers work hard to constantly improve their organic farming cultivation practices and the quality of their coffees."

Rennie, in future trips to the region, plans to "take some of the wealth and good will to them again," he said.

Pictures of the judging and trip to San Ignacio can be viewed at www.dailytidings.com.